Qalat, Zabul Province, Afghanistan
1. Policing “Afghanistan’s Mississippi”
Urbal, the former police chief of Shamalzai District, Zabul, beckoned the American paratroopers into his room at Zabul’s provincial police headquarters. The short, scruffy Jalalabad native had been removed from his position by Zabul’s governor recently, much to the chagrin of his American mentors. Captain Mike Tumlin, 31, wanted to check on the progress of Urbal’s tangled case.
Tumlin, of A battery, 2nd battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery, was officially the “partner” to Zabul’s police chief, and the commander of four platoons of paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne who train the Afghan National Police in various locations in Zabul. The red-headed captain – whom I knew from two prior embeds with the 82nd Airborne – was unofficially enacting governance in this arid, impoverished south-central province with 250,000 to 356,000 mainly illiterate inhabitants. The subsistence farmers and merchants and itinerant farm workers of Zabul--bigger than Connecticut but smaller than New Jersey--are spread out over 1,517 villages, and even the largest town, Shajoy, has under 40,000 citizens.
Traffic at night in Shajoy.
In February, Urbal had been brought in to Shamalzai, together with 41 Afghan National Police (ANP), to replace a corrupt, ragtag militia that had been terrorizing the locals. But Mohammed Wazir, a district governor who stood out for malfeasance even by the dismal local standards, had won a turf battle with Urbal, and now the police officer was in limbo.
Reality in Afghanistan is never quite what it seems: We were greeted by a strong whiff of hashish fumes in Urbal’s room (he said a friend had been smoking there). Nationwide, according to the Pentagon, 13.7 percent of the ANP test positive for drug use. An hour before, Zabul’s deputy police chief Jalani Khan, a 30-year veteran of the force, had also told us that Urbal borrowed or extorted about $4,000 from a local bazaar merchant. In a typical Afghan coincidence, the merchant turned up just as Urbal finished recounting his story and embraced him like a long-lost friend. Apparently he was happy that he would soon get the money back.
Tumlin smiled wryly; his deadpan sense of humor and preternatural patience help in Zabul. A 2001 West Point grad and Army Ranger, he watches himself for signs of “Stockholm Syndrome,” admitting that he probably over-estimated Zabul’s former police chief, Colonel Sarjang, who was abruptly removed for corruption in March of this year.
As if ordinary corruption weren’t enough, the drug trade permeates life and governance here. Zabul isn’t a major opium-growing province--it’s too high up, averaging between 5,000 and 7,000 feet--but it is a major transshipment route. In just one ten-day period in January, Zabul police seized over a thousand pounds of heroin from vehicles traveling on Highway One. In the roadless mountains on the Pakistan border, smaller shipments are thought to get through regularly.
Walking through the bazaar in the capital of Qalat (population 20,000) with officers attached to the Provincial Reconstruction Team, I stopped at a grungy barber shop, a surprisingly attractive café, and a motorcycle repair shop to do an informal survey of the local economy. The first two shops were only two months old, but all three merchants said business was slow because many Zabulis were in neighboring Helmand province, working as day laborers on the poppy harvest.
Sarjang’s replacement as Zabul police chief, Colonel Asadullah Sherzad, arrived on April 1 from his previous job as chief of police for Helmand province—where he was booted out by the British for massive corruption and involvement in the opium trade. He is said to be a henchman of Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of President Hamid Harzai and the Mafia boss of Kandahar.